At this time of year many university students are labouring over their dissertations. I have commented before about the difficulties that engineers seem to have in expressing themselves eloquently. So, I thought that I should offer some simple guidance.
The title of this post is the first piece of guidance. Real estate agents like to use the adage ‘location, location, location’ when talking about the relative importance of the features of properties. For technical writing it can be adapted to ‘reader, reader, reader’ – in other words, you have to think about your reader whenever you are writing.
There are lots of books about writing, and although some are admirably short, most engineers and engineering students do not read them. Maybe there is a clue there as to why engineers tend not to write material that is read by others. One of the shortest and most concise of these books is by Anne Greene called ‘Writing Science in Plain English’. I have summarised it below as a simple mnemonic:
R – Reader, reader, reader. Ok, we have done this one already. Anne prefers ‘audience, audience, audience’ (page 36) but that’s American and doesn’t work as well as a mnemonic.
E – [readers] Enjoy a story with a subject that takes rather than receives actions. See Anne on story-telling in science writing (page 12) and on using active rather than passive verbs (page 22).
A – [readers] Appreciate short, non-technical words. See Anne on using short, old words which are used frequently in spoken English (page 30). Introduce technical words slowly and only if absolutely necessary (page 36).
D – [readers] Digest new information when it follows old in sentences that vary in length. See Anne on providing familiar information at the start of a sentence and building on it through the sentence (page 52). But, don’t write strings of long sentences (more than 30 words); see Anne on varying sentence length (page 63).
E – [readers] Expect paragraphs to have a consistent structure with issue, development and conclusion. See Anne on paragraph structure and making the point at the end of the introductory paragraph(s) (page 71).
R – [readers] Remember the last thing that they read, so build arguments progressively from the least to the most important evidence. See Anne on developing persuasive arguments (page 78).
Finally, many of the technical reports that I am expected to read do not appear to have been read by the author because they are littered with typographical, grammatical and stylistic errors. So Read, Edit, Add and Delete (READ).
By the way, Anne also advises that we use ‘parallel lists’ (see page 60). By which she means lists in which the items have a consistent structure, such as in my mnemonic ‘READER’ above.
Greene, A.E., Writing science in plain English, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2013.
Williams, J., Style: toward clarity and grace, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.